|By Admin1 (admin) on Tuesday, September 02, 2003 - 12:10 pm: Edit Post
Hondruas RPCV Peggy Stuart digs gardening
Hondruas RPCV Peggy Stuart digs gardening
She digs gardening
Peggy Stuart could add staff to grow her business, but then she would be stuck in paperwork, not plants.
BY MARTIN J. MOYLAN
Most of us love gardens. But many folks don't know how to plan them — and certainly don't like planting or maintaining them.
And that's really helped Peggy Stuart grow her business.
As people see "her" gardens, particularly around Lake Calhoun and Lake of the Isles in Minneapolis and the Crocus Hill and Mississippi River Boulevard neighborhoods of St. Paul, she gets more and more calls from people in need of her green eye and thumb.
"In the last five years, the industry has exploded,'' Stuart says. "People are much more conscious of their living space. I don't think people are using their yards more, but they care about what they look like. A lot of people want them to look good."
The roots of her business go back to the late 1970s, when Stuart was working as a ground crew member at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum while earning her bachelor's degree in horticulture at the University of Minnesota. Some people asked her to tend their gardens for the summer, and she did.
In the mid-1980s — after a three-year Peace Corps stint that took her to Honduras to work with a farmers' cooperative — she began to turn gardening into a business.
It was gradual, though, because she had two young children at home.
"I started out very part time, and did not go full time for six, eight years,'' she says. "But I'm certainly working more than full time this year."
Her biggest challenge in launching her business was balancing motherhood with working intensely during summers.
"The summers were a little challenging, arranging day care and day camps — and still getting work done,'' she recalls.
She did odd jobs at first. At one point, she was growing cut flowers for the wholesale business. That wasn't viable and lasted only a few years.
Stuart will design, install and maintain gardens. Some people just want her to plan a garden and possibly plant it. Others want her to care for it, too.
Typically, she charges $30 an hour.
The bulk of her work is maintenance — in other words, gardening.
"The design and installation work is mostly in the spring and fall,'' she says. "During July and August, it's the weekly maintenance work that brings in the revenue.''
There's much competition in her business but also much work to go around.
"I have more work than I can handle,'' she says. "I've never advertised. I get business by word of mouth."
She gets a fair amount of business from garden tours.
She may be on hand to greet and talk with folks touring gardens. Oftentimes, customers leave Stuart's cards on their gardens. Or they simply pass her name on as folks ask them who did the garden.
What people want most of all in a garden are low maintenance and all-season color, she says.
"But every single person I work for has a different idea about what they want,'' says Stuart. "And each place is different.''
Some people want an English-style garden, some a Japanese. Some people are gone all winter and just care how it looks in summer.
With her knowledge of horticulture, she has an edge over amateurs, allowing her to better match the expectations of customers with the botanic possibilities and limitations of Minnesota.
"Sometimes, I lose jobs to people who charge less or don't have the education,'' she says. "But education and experience help you know what problems will come up in the future.''
She also offers more personal service than bigger outfits.
"It is just me, so the homeowner knows I'm the one who will be there,'' Stuart says. "Some larger services have crews and people don't know who will be in their space. Mine is a very personalized service."
She attributes her success and sanity to keeping her business simple. It has also allowed her to focus on plants, which she loves, instead of paperwork.
"That's one reason I keep it small,'' she says.
She doesn't have employees and she keeps expenses down by working out of her home. Occasionally, she'll use a contractor or hire high school students to help her.
"Other people have crews, and I thought about that,'' she says. "They have bigger businesses and make more money. But they have to hire an office employee and end up doing less gardening and more paperwork. And one reason I like doing the maintenance work is that I get to see a design mature. A garden really matures over many years.''
She also doesn't exceed her limits. She doesn't do large landscaping projects that involve elements such as retaining walls.
"I'll contract that out to someone like Bachman's or Gertens,'' she says. "They'll come in with a Bobcat. I don't do that.... You have to know your limitations and not take on things you're not capable of completing."
Her business is very seasonal, running from April to November. But she has decided not to follow the lead of some competitors and expand into things like snowplowing to bring in revenue at other times of the year.
In the off-season, Stuart works at the Crocus Hill Flower Market on Grand Avenue.
"So far, the business has been good to me,'' she says. "My major challenge will be how long can I do it. It does take a lot of physical energy."